AS GLOBAL leaders passionately addressed the COP26 conference yesterday, calling for solidarity in tackling net zero and biodiversity challenges, it was a pertinent reminder that strong and effective leadership is a powerful tool which can inspire even the most disillusioned of individuals to act.

This was very much clear at last week’s National Farmers’ Union of Scotland’s Autumn Conference which included a passionate address from the Scottish Government’s Mairi Gougeon, at a time where farmers and crofters are feeling undervalued and abandoned by those in power.

Scottish agriculture is on the brink of monumental change and will soon embark on a new journey which will change the way in which we work the land and produce food for the nation, with a brand-new agricultural support system being developed to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

This is a time of huge uncertainty and with constant challenges being thrown at the industry in terms of rising feed, seed and fertiliser costs, vilification of livestock farming in the media, ongoing labour struggles, extreme weather events, the list goes on – you might forgive farmers and crofters for not spotting the opportunities and positives.

But that is where good leadership comes in, to inspire individuals who are feeling exhausted and unmotivated, to see that optimism lies ahead.

Although yesterday’s “running down the clock on climate change” soundbites from the Prime Minister may have grabbed the attention of media outlets, his 007 analogies were quite a contrast to the lack of action he demonstrated a few weeks back in failing to answer the cries of pig farmers in their darkest hour. At a time where many of the nation’s food producers have lost faith in the UK Government in their shambolic handling of Brexit and a hostile immigration policy which is restricting struggling businesses access to valuable overseas labour, it was a breath of fresh air to hear from Mairi Gougeon, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for rural affairs and islands, at the conference.

She promised to support, listen and work alongside the industry in creating a greener and more prosperous future for Scottish agriculture.

Five months into the job, but in no means a newcomer to the field, Ms Gougeon has been visiting farming businesses across Scotland for over three years now – previously in her role as minister for rural affairs and the natural environment. She enthusiastically told delegates that as well as being her favourite part of the job, it was in fact the most essential.

She made it quite clear how much she valued meeting, listening and learning from individuals who worked across the food supply chain to not only get an insight into the businesses she represents but to soak up their knowledge, skills and experience to better inform her decisions and judgement.

With many farmers and crofters feeling like their contributions to climate mitigation and addressing nature restoration aren’t being recognised, she made a point of thanking them for all the work they are doing so far in improving water quality and soil health, creating wildlife corridors, planting trees to provide shelter for livestock and habitats for wildlife, reducing pesticide use and embracing minimum tillage, carrying out carbon audits and improving animal health and welfare.

Although she made a point of saying that there are still many who will need encouraged and supported to make necessary changes to their businesses, she acknowledged those who are way ahead of government in delivering environmentally friendly agriculture.

It is not an easy task commanding the attention and respect of a room of delegates who are fiercely proud and protective of their industry and can often be averse to change, especially during such turbulent times, but she signalled a positive road ahead which would support a balance between mitigating climate change, restoring nature and producing food for the nation.

She made it clear that Scotland would have its own policy framework different to that of the rest of the UK, which would better suit our unique farming landscape but didn’t shy away from the fact such divergence from UK policy would have ramifications on the internal UK market.

She promised that the Scottish Government is “wholly committed to maintaining and growing UK markets and had no plans to create unhelpful barriers to trade” – quite a contradiction from the UK Government’s current bulldozer approach to securing trade deals, which offer up farming as the sacrificial lamb. Trade deals which not only have escaped proper scrutiny but have given the green light to cheaper food flooding our markets and undermining domestic food production in the years to come.

Ms Gougeon announced the details of a National Test Programme which will begin from spring next year, looking at the best ways to re-shape national agri-policy, working with focus groups of farmers to trial a suite of measures – with £51 million in support over the next three years.

This is to help farmers and crofters learn about how their work impacts on climate and nature, including offering financial support to carry out carbon audits and nutrient management plans, establishing a clear baseline and options for action for all who participate.

From 2025 onwards, we will see the introduction of a fully functioning agri-policy with 50 per cent of direct funding removed and replaced with conditionality on delivering environmental outcomes.

Albeit a new direction of travel for many, the industry is committed to being part of the solution to a greener Scotland and with the leadership offered by Mairi Gougeon, Scotland’s farmers and crofters have now been assured that they do and will continue to play a vital part in that journey.